Parenting Out of Control: The Book on Out of Control Parenting

The “helicopter parenting” phenomenon seems to be getting nuttier by the minute and it’s easy to harrumph over the latest anecdote about a mother calling the academic dean of a college to ask why her child got a bad grade. As a college counselor at an “elite” private high school I often had to deal with mommies (seems like it’s more often mommies than daddies) who wanted to know how their child could get an A instead of an A- so he or she could get into Brown. Or who basically ran the college process while the children lazed about in blissful torpor. These stories tend to validate our feeling that the current generation of college-aged students has become way too pampered for its own good.

Unfortunately for us, Margaret K. Nelson has written an interesting and level-headed book on the topic called Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times. Rather than gleefully narrating the various misbehaviors of these over-involved parents, she approaches the topic from a sociological perspective. (Nelson is a professor of sociology at Middlebury College in Vermont.) Using class divisions and technological innovation as prisms, she looks at why parents might behave the way they do and provides some clear, if incomplete, insights about why parents these days do the things they do.

Nelson bases her conclusions on a relatively small sampling of individuals she divides into “working class,” middle class,” and “professional middle class” parents. As a result, her brush paints a rather broad picture of child-rearing practices in each group. She writes that WC and MC parents “are…less interested in intimacy and engagement [with their children] than they are in clear rules of authority within the family.” In contrast, the PMC parents she describes have “a lengthy perspective on children’s dependency without a clear launching point for a grown child,” and “put child rearing front and center: even in the midst of extremely busy lives, they highlight the significance and meaning they find in this activity, and they avoid shortcuts (such as playpens) that could make the job easier.”

But more interesting is how Nelson contrasts the WC/MC and PMC views of their children as individuals in a way that puts most of the helicoptering onus on the PMC parents. Less privileged parents, according to Nelson, “insist that by the end of a comparatively short educational career a child should be ready to pick a career, find a job, and begin the next stage of life as a fully formed adult.” They “want to encourage their children to grow…But their role involves acceptance of the particularities of their children and does not rest on a view of unlimited potential, of children who can become ‘the best.'” Especially in relation to college, WC/MC parents want their children to do something productive, not play around for four years.

In contrast, PMC parents see their children as ongoing projects with unlimited potential. As a result, there’s no end to the work of seeing them develop, which is why they insist on being “present” so constantly. For them, college isn’t a “vocational training ground,” it is a place for personal self-development: “…in lieu of job preparation, elite parents talk about the important opportunities colleges might provide for self-discovery and for gaining self-confidence. Rather than viewing college as a launching pad to independent adulthood, parents see it as a time for their children to acquire the necessary cultural and social capital to be able to seize any opportunities for status that may arise.” No wonder my students’ parents wanted them to go to Brown and not >sob!< Tufts! (I’m not making that up.)

If you perceive your children as “out the door” when they turn 18, there’s no need to keep a continual eye on them. As a parent, you’ve done your job and what results is what you’ve got. PMC parents have created a never-ending process that needs continual tweaking and adjusting. They see their children as extensions of themselves and their parenting, and so must always be involved. College is a place to refine their projects in the never-ending drive toward “perfection,” whatever form that may take.

Nelson makes the case that technological devices such as baby monitors, security bracelets, and cell phones have changed the ways parents connect with their children, often making them more fearful, not less, and promoting a sense of needing to be continually in touch with their offspring. She notes, however, that PMC parents are less likely to rely on technology to monitor and control their children than are MC/WC parents because of their commitment to molding their children’s “potential” and being intimately involved with every detail of their lives. PMC parents make calls, write emails, and so on as a natural extension of their involvement with their children; MC/WC parents are less likely to do so because they see their children as already on their way to independence.

Parenting Out of Control does a good job of delineating some of the possible sources of helicopter parenting even while it remains frustratingly shallow. It relies too heavily on Nelson’s small sample and seems to lean too much on stereotypes of privileged versus non-privileged parenting and family life without offering real three-dimensional analysis. However, using class as a way to talk about families’ expectations for their children and college is a fresh way to talk about the subject, and readers attuned to the relationship of college attainment to status consciousness will find Parenting a good source for further discussion and observation.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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